DENVER — Colorado’s health department stopped publicly sharing data on COVID-19 outbreaks at K-12 schools this week, roughly a month before many students and teachers return to the classroom.
The move, which caught at least some metro-area districts by surprise, is part of a broader rollback in what outbreak data will be posted online every Wednesday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which said it is seeking to “normalize” the process of COVID-19 reporting and treat it as the agency does other illnesses, such as the flu.
The health agency said schools still should notify families of any outbreaks that arise, but representatives for state and local teachers unions expressed concerns over whether the lack of publicly accessible data could hamper districts’ efforts to respond quickly to a surge in coronavirus cases — or even parents’ ability to judge whether they want their children to wear masks at school.
“Our focus at this phase in our pandemic response is really about preventing severe outcomes in priority settings,” said Ginger Stringer, epidemiology response program manager for the health department. “It’s not that we’re not addressing COVID in schools.”
The implications the change in data reporting could have on schools when the 2022-23 academic year begins remains unclear. The health department already significantly loosened its guidance for schools earlier this year, reducing the scenarios in which students and employees had to quarantine after exposure to the virus and letting districts end their contact tracing efforts.
And districts, including Denver Public Schools and the Douglas County School District, had already stopped requiring students and employees to wear masks in school buildings by the time classes let out for the summer.
There was confusion this week as the state Department of Public Health and Environment announced it was reducing the outbreak data it reports to the public, with some school districts unaware the change was coming — and at least one that thought the agency already had made the change months ago.
While the health department changed its guidance on how schools approach COVID-19 outbreaks, it continued to post new school-based outbreaks and backlogged data from the omicron surge on its public website through the spring, Stringer said.
“The definition of an outbreak in a school at this point is any increase of a baseline (of infections),” Stringer said.
Schools are still required to report COVID-19 outbreaks to public health agencies.
Administrators at Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, “were aware there was some discussion at the state level” of ending publicly reporting outbreak data, but they didn’t know it had been finalized when it was rolled out this week, spokesman Scott Pribble said.
When asked about the confusion among school districts, Stringer said the health department didn’t think about the changes in data reporting in the context of schools because it wasn’t updating its guidance on how they should respond to the transmission of the virus.
“CDPHE plans to update school guidance to encourage schools to communicate with parents and guardians about how they plan to communicate case outbreak status to their students and families,” said Therese Pilonetti, education setting expert lead for the health department, in a statement.
Outbreaks at schools have dropped in recent months as children are on summer break, but during a peak in March they made up 419 — or 37% — of the 1,130 active outbreaks listed on the state’s COVID-19 data website. Last week, 87 of the 562 active outbreaks reported by the Department of Public Health and Environment were at schools.
Zero schools were listed among the state’s active COVID-19 outbreak data on Wednesday as the health department’s changes went into effect.
The health department is still publicly reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in high-risk spaces, including nursing homes, correctional facilities and day care centers. And while outbreaks in other settings are still reportable to state and local public health officials, the health department will no longer conduct case investigations in what it calls “non-priority settings,” according to a news release announcing the changes.
Transmission of the coronavirus remains high and a new variant of the virus — called BA.5 — appears to be breaking through the immune system more often than its predecessors, leading to uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic. The rise in home COVID-19 tests has also made it harder to track the spread of the virus, as fewer results are reported to state health departments.
One of the concerns about the changes in reporting is whether it will lead schools to respond more slowly to potential outbreaks and that it could lead to less information for parents about how prevalent the virus is in their children’s school, said Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
“It’s a surprise and it’s concerning in the fact that COVID’s not over,” he said.
Denver schools faced significant staffing challenges last year as educators became sick and the district was unable to find enough substitute teachers to cover for them, leading classes to temporarily be canceled, he said.
“We believe that it’s very important that our schools are safe places for both our students and our educators,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers union.
“One of the things with this in particular — there’s not a lot of clarity on what this actually means,” she said of the changes in data reporting.
(Reporter Meg Wingerter contributed to this report.)